Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

How They See Me vs. How I See Them: The Ethnographic Self and the Personal Self

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

How They See Me vs. How I See Them: The Ethnographic Self and the Personal Self

Article excerpt

The nature of the relationship between the researcher and the researched is critical to understanding the nature of the research as a whole. To be sure, the form that a particular ethnography takes emerges in discourse. An ethnographic interview, for instance, is a highly personal encounter that is shaped by the interpersonal exchange between the ethnographer and the informant. The speaker will only reveal what he or she wants the researcher to know. Therefore, the quality and depth of the relationship between the two individuals determines what will be said. Usually, the longer and more amiable the relationship, the richer and more consistent is the final product.1 Even if narrators answer a prepared set of questions, how they respond depends entirely on the level of rapport. As Clyde Kluckhohn stated: "No two researchers will ever see 'the same' culture in identical terms any more than one can step twice into the same river" (1959:254 cited in Pandey 1972:335).

Strangely, despite all of the uproar surrounding the "crisis of representation" (Marcus and Fischer 1986) and all of the literature spawned as a result, there has been little more done than just talking about and around it. Countless books and articles are filled with well-intentioned theoretical pontifications, but only a small percentage of these are field-tested. Methodological rigor-or honesty-has not yet come to fruition. Instead, it appears that most scholars are content to continue practicing an academic sleight-of-hand.

If there is indeed such a "crisis" of representation, it seems to me that the obvious solution is to disclose the ways and manner in which the representation takes place. Although revealing how texts are constructed may spoil the aura of inviolability, it also lends credibility to the research. The only honest alternative is to acknowledge our particular role in the ethnographic process. What I am advocating here, of course, is reflexivity. According to Jay Ruby, to be reflexive "is to insist that anthropologists systematically and rigorously reveal their methodology and themselves as the instrument of data generation" (1980:153). More specifically, it is to be accountable to the three components of the communicative process: producer, process, and product (Ruby, 1980:157). While all ethnographies focus on the last, very little is explicitly mentioned about the first two.

The Ethnographic Self and the Personal Self

In his essay "The Ethnographic Self and the Personal Self," Edward M. Bruner calls the tendency for ethnographers to segment one from the other an exercise in futility: "The idea of a scientific, supposedly objective, ethnographic report that left the individual observer out of the account is not only a cliché, it is an impossibility. Every ethnographer inevitably leaves traces in the text" (1993:2). Ethnographers generally keep anything of a personal nature out of the final manuscript as a protective mechanism for fear of compromising scientific integrity. However, according to Bruner, to divorce the personal from the ethnographic is to create a false dichotomy because data are not independent of how they were acquired (Bruner, 1993:4). Thus, in this next section, I expose how my personal self has irrevocably influenced my ethnographic self.

This article is based upon my experiences conducting research among members of the Benally2 family, a matrilineal network of clan related kin. In support of my doctoral dissertation in anthropology, I spent three years doing fieldwork on the Navajo reservation where I investigated the crucial role television plays in the formation and contestation of social and cultural identities. However, this anthropological relationship was preceded by a personal relationship with the Benallys that spanned over a decade.

There is an old joke that a typical Navajo family consists of a mother, father, children, some sheep, and an anthropologist. I suppose this is true in my case as well, but I must add that I was considered a member of the family long before I ever thought of becoming an anthropologist. …

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